part 5 – project one: absence and signs of life

This section of the course opens on a quote by John Szarkowski from his introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide:

The real location, found objects and characters, combined with technology and the photographer’s eye, come together to create a new world, one balanced loosely between recognition and art.‘ (my emphasis)

On the cover of the book is (the famous) picture of a tricycle, with some anonymous bungalows and a big American car viewed across the street in the background. One morning, as I walked up Theydon Street to the bus stop, I saw a tricycle parked outside one of the houses. I have known about Eggleston for years and although I had not yet started upon this course of study, I recognised this as an opportunity to make some (referential) art, of entering into the Eggleston’s world and of transplanting a tiny bit of his Memphis into my Walthamstow. I reached into my jacket pocket for the Olympus XA which lived there…

fig.1 – walthamstow c.2013

…and click. Like Eggleston, I took a single frame. It’s not quite right. I couldn’t get far enough away from the trike to centre it in the image (and in the space). The tip of the handlebars is annoyingly cut off. Perhaps I should have put the camera on the ground and abandoned looking through the viewfinder. So, I’ve never done anything with the picture til now, but I always think of it when I see Eggleston’s original.


But I digress. After reading the quote from Szarkowsky, we are asked to reflect upon:

  •  Where does that leave the photographer? As a storyteller or a history writer?

A story teller uses narrative to make sense of the society where they live, as they see it. There may be a level of serious intent to their story telling or they may simply hope to entertain. People like stories. We’ve been being told stories since we were kids. When someone asks us, ‘How was today’ or ‘What happened’ we will generally reply by telling a story of some sort.

A historian is just a specialised type of story teller, telling stories that attempt to give a single path through the chaos of events. ‘History’ tends to exist at some point in the past (when I was at school, it became ‘Modern Studies’ after a hard cut off in 1945; now my son is studying the subject it includes events which I remember happening as news). ‘History’ is an academic subject with rules that historians are supposed to follow; it has sub-genres such as ‘family history,’ ‘local history’ ‘social history’ etc. When ‘history’ becomes about an individual it becomes ‘biography’; when history is about people known to the historian or the historian him- or herself, it becomes an ‘autobiography’ or a ‘memoir’.

‘History’ is expected to be made up from a consideration of ‘facts’ stored as such in archives (public, private or personal). These facts – often contradictory; often subjective; always positioned politically in their own time – are then sifted and sorted and hammered into a – supposedly – definitive ‘truth’. This ‘definitive truth’ is in turn able to be examined as – secondary – source material for later attempts to come up with another even more definitive ‘truth.’

This need for history to be written with a degree of hindsight seems to rule out any idea of the photographer working as a historian; possibly a photographer could view their work as parallel to that of a journalist – writing the ‘first draft of history’ – but I suspect that, for me at least, there is a less noble impulse at work than that. I think I take pictures of things that catch my eye and which interest me with a view to putting them together into more meaningful collections later.

We are not historians, but perhaps we are trying to second guess history and to capture things that later, after they have acquired the patina that time can bestow, will become its building blocks. We lay up images as if they were wines, or cheese, in the hope that the mundane facts that surround us will become objects of fascination later on. Some – holiday snaps, news pictures, fashion photography perhaps – like yoghurt or cottage cheese, can be served almost as soon as they are done (although they may of course become more interesting in time) while others will need to age for longer, like parmesan or stilton, in order to acquire the patina of history.

  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?

Since every photograph I take is of a thing (or a number of things) that have existed in front of my camera – that old question of indexicality popping up again – the basic building blocks of my practice as a photographer can be seen as somehow factual.  But the real magic happens when I put these building blocks together, when I decide that this 30th of a second, belongs next to that 125th.

Since every photograph I make is the product of a string of my decisions – I should stand here, I should cut off the frame there, I should open the shutter… NOW! – these individual facts are formed of – at best –  subjective truths. I exclude much more of my experience than I include. Where I stand in relation to the subject – to use the famous example, when I photograph a demonstration, am I standing with the protesters confronted by ‘the pigs’ or am I standing behind the policemen, looking at ‘the mob’ – will determine the nature of the fact that I present.

The french word histoire has fewer connotations of an academic pursuit than it does in its modern English form. Henry Fielding’s most famous novel has the full title, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling; it is of course a fiction. It is also intended to be read as a story, with the reader aware that  – while all the things that happen in the book have probably happened somewhere, sometime – they are intended to draw lessons from it about life and society.

‘A fiction’ is not necessarily to be equated with ‘a lie’; but it does include an awareness of the extent to which it has been constructed from its elements. Eggleston painted a picture of a place that was very like the Memphis he lived in, but managed to distance himself (and the viewer) from any attempt to portray an all-encompassing portrait of the city. He is operating at some distance from W. Eugene Smith’s obsessive and doomed attempt to encapsulate all Pittsburgh. Eggleston tells his story (or possibly more accurately, recites his poem) about a place that is a bit like the real city of Memphis. I have seen him speak (at the National Portrait Gallery two Julys ago now) and when he does – even when he’s being probed by Sean O’Hagan – he’s giving nothing away…

  • How could you blend your approach?

I thinking blending could come from softening (or removing entirely) the relation between the subject matter and its original context. You can picture something in situ or you can take it away for photographic attention  later. If it is too large to move, you could picture it in some way that limits the clues about it circumstances from around it. The less there is to help ground something, the more easily it floats free in time and space. As such it becomes both more and less itself and less rooted in the specificity of where you found it.

The absence of people in Eggleston’s picture of the trike means there are none of the clues that we can read from people’s appearance. The title is vague – Untitled, Memphis c.1969-70. The (koda)colour palate of the film and the styling of the car glimpsed through the space under the trike’s frame help place the frame in time, but no more accurately than the title. The house in the background seems suburban, American. The tricycle, looming huge and abandoned, maybe says something about a type of childhood. Maybe the photographer’s, or maybe yours, the viewer’s.

Then you could take it one stage further and remove the tricycle from the scene entirely, putting it in front of a neutral backdrop. It would cease being something from the place that William Eggleston is guiding you through and become closer to occupying the space of an item from a catalogue of childhood.

  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

Some things need to stick as close as they can to an objective reality; some things simply matter enormously in the here and now. These things probably will form part of histories yet to be written. Robert Capa’s Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, still would be a striking photograph if it were a set-up, but once you start wondering about its provenance you have much less space in your head to consider what it means for people to be being killed, in Spain, on that hill at that time. This weakens its propagandistic value considerably. The title makes a huge claim for the photograph; if it is ‘a lie’ how can we trust the photographer? How can we trust the people who publish the picture? How can we trust the people who use the picture to gain our sympathy?

‘The camera never lies’ but if in fact it does (or rather the person wielding it lies about the photograph) how can we ever believe anything? We certainly can believe a little less in the cause of the Spanish republic and – if we were suffering this crisis in the nineteen thirties – become less likely to join the International Brigades or to donate money or to lobby our MPs to intervene.

To go back to Grenfell Tower and my previous assignment, it was important not to fabricate anything and to make sure that the pictures taken in the surroundings of the tower were not misdescribed by the words: the Avondale picture was taken from the Avondale Conservation Area; the Ladbroke picture was taken looking out from the heart of the Ladbroke Conservation Area. The blackened tower block with its empty windows needed no trickery in order to be recognisable as itself, even when partially hidden by trees of buildings. The words themselves are real sentences taken from the real planning documents, which are still available online. I have checked. I have been scrupulous.

I don’t think I would ask a militiaman to pretend he’s just been shot, but the way I presented my – verified, fact checked – words in the Grenfell assignment has no correlative in the objective world. I made those pictures from words printed in a ‘typed’ typeface scanned and then layered them onto a photograph of a record card; I rearranged the words from Gary Younge’s article in the Guardian so that they fitted the aspect ratio of my images, and missed out the other words that surrounded them. I tried my best (and I think I have succeeded) to hide my efforts to fabricate these ‘documents’ and, at their heart, the words – ‘real’ words, from ‘real’ records – are really true. The key thing here is that the viewer is not distracted from what the diptychs ‘mean’, by the facts of their construction.

In Barthes’ essay The Rhetoric of the Image, one of the things achieved by anchoring text is a reduction in the myriad number of possible meanings (the polysemous nature of the photograph) that an be drawn from a single image. It is this process of limiting meanings that allows pictures to be used as evidentiary ‘fact’

fig.2 – this is not my olympus xa

Most of the time it doesn’t matter a bit whether there is something made up about my photographs, any more than it does about the made up bits in novels which take place in the past and contain real events and real people – War and Peace, say or Pat Barker’s novels set  during the first world war that feature her imaginings of ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ and ‘Wilfred Owen.’ Where it does matter is when there are real (and notice I haven’t used inverted commas here) consequences to what the fiction means. There may well be corporate manslaughter charges as a result of the Grenfell inquiry; people have died; people may go to prison.

More trivially, a passport photograph has to look enough like the person holding the passport to allow a border official to identify them. While I would never cross a border without my glasses, I have to take off my glasses for a passport photo. I could  have recently grown a beard which will be shaved off years before my shiny new, ten-year passport expires. My passport picture both looks like me and it does not.

History is supposed to be objective; my experience of things that may form part of history is highly subjective, and rendered even more so by the set of decisions I make (consciously or subconsciously) as I take a photograph. All my pictures exist somewhere on a spectrum running from relatively uninflected to really rather constructed. If they seem to warrant a factual treatment, I’ll try to limit the range of available meanings to those that match my own take on the events; at other times, I’m happy to leave a much wider range of meaning for the viewer to piece together their own sense of what the picture is ‘about’ but even then, I try to limit the meanings to ones that fit ones that I’m comfortable with.

It’s all in the telling, I suppose.


When I look at my tricycle picture now, I still see Eggleston’s original, floating behind it (or maybe in front of it) but I also see a constellation of circles – the three wheels of the tricycle of course, three wheels on the cars over the street and the wheel at the side of the wheelie bin. And I really like the way the trike’s seat sits on the wheel of the black car. I don’t mind that it is an imperfect appropriation of Eggleston’s original. It is something else and that is just fine.

fig.3 – walthamstow c.2018

And, of course,  I still find myself thinking of William Eggleston from time to time, when I’m out with my camera.

 


Reference:

  • Eggleston, W – photographs –  & Szarkowski, J – introduction (1976) William Eggleston’s Guide Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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